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April 1, 2000

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Powerful, riveting

Rohit Chopra

Joan Of Arc This one rocks the house.

Luc Bessonís violent and disturbing The Messenger: The Story of Joan Of Arc is an intelligent take on the historical and mythic story of Joan Of Arc. A brilliantly executed largescale drama of war, politics and religion, the movie is also a deftly-handled psychological thriller.

Add to this the inimitable stylised touch of Besson, mesmerising cinematography, impressive editing, a stirring background score, and you get an absolute cinematic treat. Though close to three hours long, this film kept me on the edge of my seat right throughout. Donít miss it.

The background to the events in the film, culled from the medieval ages, proves conclusively that History is the best storyteller of them all, with even Shakespeare coming a poor second. In brief, the setting is such: It is the early 15th century. France is no longer an independent country. With an English ruler at the helm of affairs in the country, English soldiers are pillaging the country.

Charles VII (played by John Malkovich), the Dauphin and rightful king of France, is practically living the life of an exile in his own country. Support and succour are provided to him by his mother-in-law, Yolande DíAragon, (Faye Dunaway) and a band of loyalists.

Joan Of Arc The action starts in Domremy, a village in France, where lives a religious young girl, addicted to confessing in church several times a day and given to hearing the voice of God. One day she has a vision. On the same day, she witnesses the English laying waste to her village and the brutal murder and rape -- in that order -- of her sister. This girl is Jeanne, who will later metamorphose into Joan Of Arc (Milla Jovovich).

A few years later, the voices guide Jeanne to the court of the Dauphin, from where she can embark on her mission to restore France to its legitimate ruler. Goaded by his shrewd mother-in-law, who gauges that Jeanne is a figure who has caught the imagination of the people, the Dauphin takes up her offer.

With Jeanne leading from the front, the Dauphinís army liberates Orleans and Reims, and the Dauphin is crowned as the King of France. Jeanne presses on with the army in her desire to liberate every city and town in France from the English, but, thanks to a twist in the tale, finds her efforts and intentions thwarted.

What makes the movie work -- and work wonderfully well, at that -- is Luc Bessonís cinematic control, first and foremost. The narrative balances, with finesse, a subjective exploration of Jeanneís state of mind, and a compelling depiction of objective events.

In tandem, the camerawork and editing contribute a controlled edginess and and tension to the action. Jeanneís visions, which are visual delights, are portrayed as surreal experiences, beautiful and scary; and the battle scenes, with stomach churning sights aplenty, are so well done and engrossing that one forgets how long they actually go on for! A word about the violence in the film: thereís lots of it, and if youíre the sort who gets queasy at the sight of blood, stay away from this one.

What also comes across quite clearly is Bessonís magisterial understanding of the medieval period and his intuitive sense of the historical. The dominance of the church, the powerful impact of religious symbols and images in the lives of the people, the knotted links between politics and religion -- these are woven into the atmosphere of the film with an immediacy that has obvious resonances for our times too.

Joan Of Arc And within this world so masterfully drawn by Besson, the actors fill out their characters magnificently. Milla Jovovich is excellent as Jeanne, the illiterate young girl resolute in her belief, yet also tormented in her faith. Her performance is consistent, except for a stutter or two in the second half, where she seems to flag for a bit in the battle scenes.

Faye Dunaway, too, is very good. Combining hauteur with a no-nonsense attitude and great political sense, Dunaway is the perfect mix of Machiavellian politico and caring mom-in-law. And John Malkovich, one of Hollywoodís finest, is simply brilliant as Charles VII. As the slightly effeminate, fay king who isnít really bad at heart and who can be endearingly philosophical, he wins our sympathy. And as the weak, wavering king who is easily swayed and is a trifle scared of some of his noblemen, he loses that sympathy and provokes annoyance instead.

Dustin Hoffman, as Jeanneís conscience is not bad, though he is the weakest link in the lot.

Bessonís films, even when they get panned by critics, usually garner quite a cult following, and the man is synonymous with hip, cool, cerebral cinema. But this film is cerebral in the best sense of the word. It works at many levels and offers itself up for many interpretations without forcing any one version down the throats of the viewers.

Even if one does not want to concern oneself with hunting for deeper meanings or with finding out more about the medieval period, one can 'get' the film completely and enjoy it. However, Besson has layered it and treated it rather interestingly for those keen on the more theoretical forms of appreciation.

For instance, Besson (and Jovovichís performance as well) leaves a door open for sceptics to share Jeanneís doubts about the voices she hears. Was she really someone with unshakeable faith, or was she just an obsessively pious woman who was able to convert that fervour into nationalistic passion? The viewer is free to choose.

The fact that Jeanne is freshly into adolescence when she has a vision for the first time, the suggestion of sexual ecstasy during such experiences, her manic, compulsive need to confess even in the face of death -- these thought-provoking touches save the film from becoming a mere hagiographic rendition of an individual.

The underlying philosophical theme that Besson explores concerned with the nature and origin of faith and miracles. Even if Jeanne does not actually hear voices, but acts out of unknown impulses from her subconscious, does that make her achievements any less miraculous? Isn't the fact that a chit of a girl who cannot read or write leads an army of battle-hardened soldiers to impossible victory a miracle in itself? Here too, Besson does not tilt in favour of a yes or no, but leaves the questions dangling tantalisingly, for the viewer to decide.

Joan Of Arc Equally captivating is Bessonís analysis of the medieval mindset, and the role played by religion and politics in shaping that consciousness. Before the Renaissance and before the beacon of Reason shone through the dark ages like a clear torchlight, the general attitude of the average individual in medieval Europe towards life was that of contemptus mundi. That is, life was viewed as an irksome interruption before an individual could lead a higher form of existence in heaven after liberation by death. The church was all powerful, and worship and religion were public, social affairs.

The portrayal of Jeanneís subversion of these ideas, even while adhering to them in some ways, is a tremendously powerful feature of the film. We see Jeanne very much as a creature of her times, and, at the same time, as someone special and different. This is so much more engaging than, say, a straightforward depiction of her as a visionary would have been.

Some time ago, Shekhar Kapur made a film on a historical figure and wound up producing a piece of junk. If he wants to make another such film, he would be well advised to take a look at The Messenger. This movie indeed, sets the standard for the newly emerging sub-genre of film that reinterprets the lives of historical personae.

I had read a fair bit of material on Joan Of Arc almost 10 years ago as a student. I could never have imagined then that Iíd find a cinematic depiction of that story more exciting than any Hollywood action thriller. But, such is the case. And Luc Besson is to be thanked for that. Watch this now!

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